After spending the day with her dad as he surveyed timber for his job as a Weyerhaeuser forester, teenager Jocelyn Pritchett asked him a weighted question: What kind of engineering is closest to what you do?
“He said, ‘Well, I guess civil,’ and I remember thinking that I’d scared him to death because he knew whatever he said could influence the rest of my life,” Pritchett recalled. “He was afraid being a woman in engineering would be a hard choice. But, I think it’s all worked out OK.”
It’s hard to disagree with that assessment of her 23-year career, sitting in the lobby at Pritchett Engineering and Planning. There are no phones ringing in the background, and the floor of offices isn’t exactly bustling with activity, but that’s the point of her family-friendly business—the work happens whenever and wherever the employees are.
“My original thought was to create a company where parents would feel like they were in charge of their own time, but it’s turned out that a lot of people, not just parents, want that flexibility,” Pritchett explained. “I reached the same goal, it just ended up affecting more people than I thought.”
A 1990 graduate of Mississippi State, Pritchett decided to start her own firm after the birth of her daughter, when putting in 50-hours a week at the office was no longer a practical option. At the time, she had nearly two decades of experience designing roads, navigating the permit process and planning engineering projects, so she knew what kind of company she wanted to create. She admitted, however, that taking that first step was a little scary.
“I just walked in here, put a chair in this room and thought ‘Oh God, how am I going to do this,’” Pritchett said. “I had to take it step-by-step. I built a website, made a logo and for $50 filed the LLC paperwork with the state. From there, I just started letting people know I was here.”
She added, “That first year I only had one client, but he had a lot of work.”
Now in its fifth year, Pritchett Engineering and Planning has 11 employees, including other Mississippi State graduates and even one Ole Miss alumna—“bless her heart,” Pritchett said with a laugh.
“I’m finding that this flexible work environment is best for people, so I’ve been a messenger of that,” Pritchett said. “You have to have a lot of trust in your employees and good people, but we have that covered.”
The company doesn’t have a receptionist or even an office phone system. Instead, all paperwork is completed through a cloud network and employees conduct business using cell phones, whether they’re at home with kids, by the nearest fishing hole or in the company’s Flowood offices. Still, despite its unconventional setup, the company averages annual billings of around $1 million from a variety of clients, including the Mississippi Department of Transportation and various municipalities.
The company offers design and planning services for all types of transportation projects, but specializes in National Environmental Policy Act studies and permits that help engineers determine where projects—like new roads— should go in order to avoid, minimize or mitigate any negative effects to the environment.
Pritchett said the studies have to consider both the human environment, such as communities and private property, and the natural environment, such as wetlands and animal habitats.
“Permitting can be complicated,” Pritchett observed. “It can take a long time because there are so many impacts or so many people pulling for one action or another. Planning and permitting these projects takes patience and communication skills.”
She continued, “I remember one time, I had an elderly woman cry on me at a public meeting because we were taking her barn in a proposed road plan. We had moved the road away from her house thinking it would be better to take the barn instead, but as it turned out, her late husband had built that barn. We had no way of knowing until she told us.”
Pritchett said that because the woman spoke up, the plan was changed in a way to avoid the barn, which goes to show the power of people’s voices and the importance of attending public meetings.
“The state of Mississippi does a good job of encouraging the public to let their voices be heard, and Mississippians realize what progress means for their well-being and their communities,” Pritchett said.
Among the most rewarding projects she’s worked on, Pritchett lists assisting with Hurricane Katrina recovery and helping bring highways to the Delta for an economic boost. However, she said some of her favorite projects are those that further develop what many engineers with the department of transportation refer to as the “Highway to God’s Country” —state Highway 25 that connects Bulldog alumni working in the state capital to their alma mater’s campus in Starkville.
She said whether they were born in Mississippi or simply adopted it as their home, all of her employees share a common mission of wanting to help the Magnolia State in every way they can.
“People complain that nobody comes to Mississippi and stays; that all of our talent gets exported. But I don’t think that’s true, and the people who are here want to take care of the state,” she said. “We all need to work together for what’s best for Mississippi.”